Can this employment relationship be saved?

As an aside from writing on employment “law” issues, the below relates to an issue that seems to underlie many of my counseling sessions with employers or employees: Personality conflicts.

Similar themes seem to emerge no matter what legal issue is being raised.

From the employer perspective, loyal good behavior and a positive attitude from an employee is essential to the successful operation of a business.

From the employee’s view, a lack of recognition, opportunity to succeed and perceived lack of respect from a manager can stir up anger and frustration.

The result is a downward spiral in the employment relationship.

Resolving conflicts – without going to court

By the time the issue reaches my office, many people consider the employment relationship unsalvageable. However, that’s often not the case. In some situations, I’m able to help employers and employees work together and minimize legal expenses and hassles.

Based on my experience both as an employment lawyer and in teaching human resource managers, I’ve distilled the following five steps to improving and fixing these relationships.

    1. Have an attitude that anything can be fixed. We often look at behavioral issues as unfixable. But in some cases what we see as personality traits may simply step from communication issues. Case-in-point: I recently consulted with an employee who believed all of her issues were related to her manager’s chauvinistic perspective. She was considering suing for gender discrimination. Indeed, after initially discussing it with her, it appeared that the problems she experienced were related to differences in which men and women tend to view work issues and relationships. We had a thorough discussion about these differences and it revealed that these were largely differences in communication and work styles. She wanted to fix the problem and I role-played the male perspective to help her strategize and identify where the relationship was breaking down and how to resolve the differences. It ended up with her understanding that perspective and ultimately toward resolving many of the issues.

    2. Focus on the constructive. Many times both employees and managers focus on negatives – minor complaints, work environment issues, etc. But simply airing complaints can backfire. When workplace problems are identified but not discussed and fixed quickly, they fester and worsen. Action step: To keep the focus constructive, consider this rule: If you identify a problem, you also need to offer at least two potential solutions for fixing it.

    3. Keep an open and regular dialogue. Although issues and differences should not be framed negatively, the dialogue should be honest and consistent. Many managers tend to dislike employees who complain, but the complaints can be a good source of improvement. Employees may also bristle at criticism – even when it’s well-intentioned. Specific, targeted feedback tends to get the best results on both sides. Whether these dialogues occur formally in weekly one-on-one sessions or less formal meetings, they should be held regularly in almost any employment environment.  Action step: Pick no more than two improvement items per meeting and be clear about how to fix them.

    4. Make friends, not enemies. I often coach employees to be careful with complaints about their supervisors or anyone in a superior position because many people, including managers, are vindictive. If you find yourself in a position in which someone views you as an enemy (especially if it’s a boss or executive), build relationships with other people in the organization. They may help you create better working conditions so you can save the employment relationship. Worst case, they could be the ones who provide you with positive references in the future should you need them.  

    5. Seek counsel. There are many resources available to those who seek out advice.  Many employees avoid going to an employment attorney because they are reluctant to sue. However, many employment attorneys act as advisors and counselors and have often dealt with breakdowns in relationships without filing suit. Employers are likewise reluctant to pay for counsel where the issue does not appear to be a “legal” issue. But, as I have seen in practice, behavioral issues can quickly lead to legal costs and problems. Finally, employment attorneys are often accessible because they are in good supply. Take advantage of the availability of good counsel when an employment relationship is not going well. The fee for consultation is typically small relative to the costs relating to a failed employment relationship.  

Brendan Hennessy, Esquire is a practicing attorney with an office in Malvern, Pennsylvania, focusing in the area of employment law for both employers and employees.  Call 484-875-3111 for a consultation.  

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Brendan D. Hennessy, Esquire is an experienced attorney and provides an assortment of legal services, focusing in the area of Employment Law.